Time was a haze. It was a drug that made her numb. She sensed everything, saw everything, but it felt distant, just beyond touch. And yet there were jolts.
Vivek called on a Saturday.
“Hello,” she tried to gather warmth, but her voice sounded damp.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, “we didn’t get to talk properly at the event.”
Oh give me a fucking break, will you? She wanted to say. But she could not.
He was often in Princeton on weekends. He had a couple of friends in grad school here and he liked to hang out with them. “They’ve kept me from growing out of campus, and I like that.”
“As opposed to hanging out with real people in the city?” Megha asked.
His laughter was hesitant, crumbling. She laughed too. They met in a bagel joint in Highland Park. It felt odd. It was four in the afternoon and neither of them felt like having bagels. Megha was glad about the oddity, that something felt just a little off. She still wasn’t quite sure why she was doing this.
Old memories, she told herself. But there hadn’t been anything between her and Vivek back in school, and in any case, they were too young, and went their separate ways even before they turned eighteen.
Vivek used to have longish hair back then, and she had distant memories of his hair always falling across his eyes, and of him sweeping it back and making the motion of tying it back into a ponytail but never actually tying it, so it always looked like a harried housewife fighting her rowdy hair in a busy kitchen. It was funny and kind of unforgettable.
Now Vivek had close-cropped hair, almost like a Marine, which threw the sharpness of his features into relief.
Sometimes, Megha felt they looked strangely similar.
Something about that felt wrong.
What was he trying to do, make amends? Megha found him overpowering and intrusive, almost a threat. The world where she lived did not really exist for him. It was like a slap on her face. How could she make so much of what meant so little to the world?
Weakly, she tried.
“You’ve been living in the skyscrapers,” she said. “But the best of the city is underground.”
“I do take the subway sometime,” he grinned. “Oh god,” she said. “Get a life.”
She told him about the Brooklyn club where they did spoken word sometimes.
“Swing by Saturdays if you can handle it,” she smiled. He looked at her tenderly. Something inside her felt sick. What was she trying to do? Her beliefs would never mean shit to him.
He had not read any of Megha’s poetry since the school magazine, did not know it had an adult life before that alum bulletin announcing her fellowship.
“How would I know?” He asked innocently. “All that seems to be some kind of smoky underground cult. I live in the skyscrapers.”
He showed up at the Williamsburg club on Saturday. They were doing spoken word. Suddenly he looked mesmerized, lost to the world. Megha stared at him and thought she saw the long hair she remembered on him from many years ago, and the motion in which he swept it behind like a tired housewife, magnetically attractive in her worry.
She also noticed that he was uncomfortable around people of colour, of whom there were many in the club, the poets and the musicians and the listeners. He spoke freely with the white people but was fidgety around the rest, who, in that pub, threw their colour in your face in ways they would probably not on the city street or the subway.
Alberto was chanting along when Kelly, the Jamaican poet, was speaking her poems on the podium. He nursed a tequila like it was a tiny cup of jasmine tea. He looked high. “I’ve invited her to speak to my class,” he said dreamily when he saw Megha, who gave him a fist bump.
Vivek acted as if Alberto was some kind of slimy animal and refused to make eye contact. Alberto drained his tequila and gave Vivek a glassy look. Megha was worried he would say something stupid about Princetonians slumming or some such nonsense. This rant against elite schools annoyed Megha sometimes. Alberto forgot his own background in Wesleyan and Yale and held on to the working-class Chicano identity that had pockmarked him out as a scholarship kid back in college. And now Kevin and his fancy trips which paid for their fancy life uptown and on the Hudson.
Megha and Vivek pulled up stools, tried to talk to each other. There were things to talk about. School, old friends, weird friends, politics, Delhi pollution, about which Vivek had much venom, and American racism—about which he didn’t have much to say—about corruption, corruption everywhere, books, books, and books. Vivek read as widely as he did back in school and now Megha could not shame him enough for raving about Daniel Goleman’s narrative of emotional intelligence and trying to explain neighborhoods with insights from Malcolm Gladwell.
She told him about Rory’s offer of a teaching stint in Delhi. “That’s ridiculous,” Vivek said. “Why would you go back to Delhi? Everything is here.”
Megha cringed sharply. The bitter fumes rose again. “You realize,” she looked at him, “that I’ll never get a real job without the degree in hand.”
“So just get down and get it done,” he returned her gaze. “Going into exile won’t help.”
His words struck and peeled off the happy haze of alcohol.
Excerpted from The Middle Finger, a novel by Saikar Majumdar, with permission from Simon & Schuster India